When scripting a conversation between two talking heads, writers often run into the following problem: how can we keep viewers following along without having them twiddle their thumbs in boredom?
Varying solutions have arisen. The most common is visual integration, which stems from audiovisual techniques to emphasize or de-emphasize key actions or dialogue. This is most personalized, for example, in Akiyuki Shinbo and Kenji Nakamura’s signature styles, as seen in works like Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei and Mononoke. KyoAni’s Hyouka solves this—much like other detective fictions in graphic format—by displaying visual cues on the screen while Oreki explains solutions to the mysteries. However, sometimes, there is a perceived dissonance among unironic implementations, such that the heavy emphasis on histrionics makes the practice fall flat on its face. Lo and behold, Shingeki no Kyojin is one of them—churning rubbish out quicker than greasy fast food from
a better another show of the season.
Note: As a forward to those who believe that I’m simply playing the contrarian, there is in fact an important distinction between being unrealistic and being bombastic. Shingeki makes the former somewhat logical via character reactions, but—as shown—the implementations to emphasize them are invariably poor: bolded dark lines, speedlines, pallete discoloration, loud orchestral music at off-key scenes, and dramatic acceleration into close-ups.
This will also be quite a long post, so feel free to hop around to different sections depending on your favorite flavor of Shingeki comedy. Now with that out of the way, let’s get into some delicious scene analysis.
Exhibit A: Wailing (Episode 1, 09:34-11:28)
Note the darkened, bold vertical lines swept around both sets of eyes. This is used to fix one’s attention towards the center of their facial expressions, emphasizing the particular shock that the two experience within their reactions. In context, this arguably makes sense for the old women; she learns that her son was killed in action, and all that remains of him is an arm. This makes her desperate to know if he had at least made a difference in his life, and her desperation is packaged in the form of a misconfigured facial expression, and copious attention towards her while the anicamera does a close-up. This is exaggeration #1, but not to such an extent that it’s plain poor or unreasonable. Followed by this is the troop leader’s shocked expression, almost as if it’s a necessary pleasantry to be made when talking to bat-shit-desperate old ladies. His expression is not exaggerated for ill effect, but really not even necessary. The old lady gets the point across fine, without needing the same bold lines along the troop leader. This is mediocre in implementation, as the scene requires a more measured finesses with employing this “graphic-comics” style. However, that is not what makes this scene so bad. Let’s go a few more seconds in.
This is 5 consecutive panels, mind you. If the histrionics were already there from the previous dialogue, this is plain icing on the cake. Note the sudden change from facial close-ups into a panned view, stricken down by massive speedlines along the edges, in parallel to the angle of the facial close-ups. Pictures do not even give the speedline animation justice. It’s a single backdrop layered on top by vastly accelerated lines, which fly down merely for the sake of adding hypersonic animation and attention into a conversation. What’s also not noticeable through pictures is the dramatic change in BGM and SFX, treading from a soft (yet melancholic) piano tune immediately towards rambunctious gushes of wind. Shouting “PLEASE LOOK AT ME!” can’t get more obnoxious than this.
The visual integration would be fine if the action taking place really warrants this style of behavior. But it’s not: he’s just shouting, and the anicamera doesn’t forget to pan around to every shocked face in the audience either, with the exact same speedlines taken place. It scours once to the general crowd for the overall effect, then the mother for being the primary receiver, then to our lovable lead Eren, and then back to the wailing commander, almost as if he cares about the son even more than the mother. The emphasis here is purely unrequired for the event taking place: this is dialogue, not action, and we know too little of either character to understand whatever context that would make the two so restless, especially to the extent that even the troop leader collapses in tears (in front of his subordinates, mind you).
Exhibit B: Cables (Episode 3, 19:35-21:35)
The beginning of this scene starts off innocently enough, as Eren describes how he aims to overcome all odds despite his inadequacies with military equipment. No drastic techniques are used here; only conventional tools need apply. However, already you get this confounded, unnerving feeling as the scene rolls out, coming from the drum beats in the background music. You just know something is going to happen.
Just like Exhibit A, this scene shares all the same problems: wrong context and unwieldy exaggeration. For the most part, the speedlines are implemented in the same vein which makes Exhibit A so bad, as they wrap around the frames’ edges in order to bring focus towards the center. Slant angles are also offered to add variation (because you know, if you want to keep the speedlines funny, you gotta switch up your act!). However, there are key differences within this scene that are particularly noteworthy. Take the first screencap here, which has speedlines not only on the edges but overcasting the textures brought around Eren’s face: particularly, his shoulders and the backdrop behind him. This is a fine example of what I mean when I say Shingeki‘s production values are poor. Not only is the overreliance on speedlines an issue because of their routine use, but because it takes away from any creativity within the screenplay. Here, we see that the speedlines are used to bring focus to Eren’s face, without actually using a decent camera angle or using clever animation to do that; the speedlines are used to make up for the bad shot by blurring out everything else. This is the equivalent of taking an amateur-grade camera picture, and dramatically bloating the result with a single tool in Photoshop. If one has the skill, why not take a decent camera shot to begin with?
What’s also interesting is that you can start to see the speedlines learn some tricks of its own. There’s new animation effects, as the speedlines now seizure like little crack babies. Instead of flying straight down or at an angle, the lines blink in madness, as if someone out there asked the unspeakable question, “Are there even more forceful ways to attention-whore?”. There’s also the use of chroma discoloration in the palette, in order to emphasize key frames and poses. Notice this in particular on the last two; full body shots are used to grab the context in the scene, and the heavy theatrics in both frames are enough to understand their context and meaning without any additional words. Lovely, isn’t it..?
I should also mention that this scene is not dialogue at all but purely a gesture-heavy event. What this means is that the application of these techniques follow more broadly toward all potential mundane events, not just mundane conversations. Even Eren’s celebration at the end gets speedlines (and the chroma discoloration), which shows that the work uses these techniques to emphasize any and all things they might find boring, not just dialogue, grit, or FPS-intense actions. This implies no measured finesse whatsoever in the implementation of these techniques. They’re used haphazardly toward anything and everything the writers feel deserve more tacky emphasis.
Speedlines and chroma discoloration aren’t the only inadequacies characterizing the production values in this scene. Notice Eren’s smug reaction, an awfully complacent look for passing such an inconsequential training act. It really makes no sense, especially because this is the only training episode we ever see, so we have no context for what makes this test more important than, say, the actual maneuvering in flight. To be fair, I can see how one could argue that this event is a representation of how Eren aims to overcome any of his (perceived) flaws, but as I state before, this situation really only undos everything that was previously established within Eren’s psyche.
Exhibit C: Man with Gun (Episode 7, 04:40-5:15)
The insipidness of this scene speaks more than I ever can.
Note: I also find the scene really funny, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who had a good laugh from it. Oh, and dye the blood spatter an opaque white, and guess what it looks like! Confirmed that Shingeki’s visuals were once a draft for a hentai.
Exhibit D: Save me! (Episode 7, 13:55-14:20)
Now, Shingeki‘s overdramatization generally doesn’t hamper the action so much as it does the mundane dialogue, and this is in large part because action-oriented theatrics are more suitable to, well, action-oriented contexts. Simply put, there’s a more reasonable frame of reference, and so the implementation is generally logical. However, in practice, this is not always true, as these criticisms also carry over to action scenes which overstep their boundaries. Case in point? This one.
I have less complaints with this scene because of what I just said above, but there are still some key criticisms to be made. One of the soldiers’ Maneuver Gear runs out of gas (good god, how many times have we seen equipment deficiencies causing problems in the show already?), and the nearby Titans are about to have a treat. The first and second shots are harmless enough, as there’s inherently nothing wrong with them. Unlike characters from the examples I point out above, this soldier is about ready to shit himself several times over, and this is fully justifiable. What else would you do when a humanoid belonging in the uncanny valley is about to chomp on your nads?
However, the third screencap is where all sorts of problems come along. The production can’t be concerned with backgrounds this time! This is practically speedlines level 3, placing Mr. Spiderman into one of the most generic tattersall stripes of blues, blacks, and white. Ever notice that the more speedlines there are, the cheaper the scene feels? Yeah, I wonder what the correlation means.. The fourth screencap would be fully excusable if it weren’t for the obnoxious SFX in sync with the speedlines. The sound is like a huge bong being hit, reverbance and all. This is clearly not what the impact of human-to-Titan would sound like, nor is the sound necessary to get the point across. That effect must be the audio sibiling to speedlines—being bombastic to the point of crossing the thresholds of realism. Still, I would compliment the scene story-wise, because it adds to the futility of attempts to save one’s comrade, and it solidifies Jean’s internal conflict. However, that has nothing to do with how poor or strong the theatrics themselves are being displayed.
Jean’s own frame is a mix and match of all the favourites in line implementation so far. We have the new lack of backdrop, overlayed speedlines in an array of colors, the basics of Shingeki theatrics (bold vertical lines swept around the eyes), and the classic anicamera close-up for your in-your-face action. I also want to mention that the Titan’s teeth are incredibly detailed in their outline, and that the shadows everywhere are solidly placed. However, the teeth lack any noticeable color besides a monochrome black and white, and the Titan’s face is all too symmetrical—with a tengu-phallic nose and discernible outlines that invariably make the copy-and-paste layer of the shot (that is, you can noticeably tell how the shadows are layered on top of a basic sketch). This speaks no #highbudgetmadness.
Now, what is the conclusion that one can draw from this? From all my scene analyses, I think the overall assertion is fairly clear. Despite claims that Shingeki no Kyojin is the best produced anime in years (some even go so far as “decades”), this is in fact not true at all. The sloppy use of its visual techniques is one thing which severely restricts Shingeki‘s art style, as well as its highfalutin orchestral music and distinctive CGI integration (that is, if you can tell something is CGI, it’s probably bad). The color palette too is a bland mix of browns (just look at all the above screencaps). How important each scene is to the work remains to be seen, but it is without a doubt that these examples are not the exception but the rule.
Final Remarks. I haven’t included scenes from more recent episodes primarily because I didn’t expect each illustration to be so long a write-up, and I can’t be arsed to write more on this topic. However, there are some sure-fire examples that are just as bad, e.g., Eren’s “I’ll kill you all” face (E09), Armin’s “epic” shouting rhetoric (E10), and Armin trying to unpilot Eren in the most recent episode (E13).
To be continued onto Part 2, which will concern more fun scene analysis, or more broadly feature other topics in Shingeki no Kyojin: worldbuilding and its “tower defense”, culture/architecture, pacing, CGI integration, or sound. If you have any opinions on this or my above arguments, drop a comment below! O-Or I guess speaking to a dead audience is fine too.